The full spectrum
Temple Grandin on autism, being depicted in an award-winning film and thinking in pictures
By Jake Armstrong 01/20/2011
Temple Grandin is no stranger to adversity. She didn’t speak until she was nearly 4 years old and struggled in school due to autism.
But Grandin is also no stranger to success. Through the perseverance of her mother and the oversight of invaluable mentors, Grandin excelled both academically and professionally, combining her picture-based thinking with unique observations of animal behavior to revolutionize the way half the cattle in the country are now handled. Her insight has also informed much of what is known about autism today.
The story of her remarkable life was documented in the eponymous HBO film “Temple Grandin,” for which Claire Danes earned the Golden Globe for best actress in a miniseries or TV movie for her portrayal of Grandin. “She’s still working with incredible zeal and devotion to illuminate mysteries about autism and animal behavior, and I have to thank you on behalf of the literally millions of lives who have been dignified and improved by your genius,” Danes said to Grandin in her acceptance speech.
The film, which also won seven Emmy Awards, further propelled Grandin’s advocacy and research to the forefront of the ongoing dialogue on how to respond to the rising number of autism diagnoses.
Grandin, the featured speaker at the Jan. 28 Special Needs Sensory Conference at the Pasadena Hilton, spoke with the Pasadena Weekly to share a little of her insight into a condition that government studies suggest now affects one in 100 children.
So, can you give our readers a state of the state for autism?
Autism is a very big spectrum. It goes from a child that is going to remain nonverbal all the way to geniuses in Silicon Valley. Einstein would be diagnosed as autistic today because he wasn’t verbal until age 3. You get too much of the trait, you get serious problems. It’s got a strong genetic basis, but it is a complicated genetics. But there is also a study out of UC Davis that showed people who live around freeways are more likely to develop autism.
Could the cause of autism really be as simple as the distance between a home and the freeway?
No. It has to interact with susceptible genetics, and what might be happening is you take kids with mild autism — the geeks and the nerds and mild autism are really the same thing. But what might be happening is someone by the highway who might be geeky ends up becoming more severe. Kids that are likely to get diagnosed are the ones having problems at school. Most of the people in Silicon Valley would be diagnosed with autistic tendencies.
I can assure you half of Silicon Valley has a lot of autism. A little bit of the trait can make you a brilliant programmer. But too much of the trait and you’ll get a severe handicap. But even that brilliant programmer is going to be a little bit awkward.
Severe autism has increased, where the child remains nonverbal. I think this is where environmental insults get in there. You might have a kid where he is a smart geek and then you get some pollution in there and he gets downgraded. It has to interact with genetics, and it’s very complicated. You’ve got the nucleotide pairs, and you’re talking about minute changes in the genetic code that leads to the impairment. We’re not talking about genes that give you blue eyes. It’s code variations inside of the genes. Then you get something in the environment and it might interact with those suceptible genes.
There’s old, old studies showing that if one identical twin has autism there is a 100 percent chance the other one will have it. That’s not true with fraternal twins. That right there shows there is a very strong genetic basis.
A lot of emphasis is put on integrating children with autism into society. What makes the difference for children who succeed and those who don’t integrate as well?
First you have to look at the severity of the autism. You have people lower down the spectrum who are not going to go to college. If they get some training, they may be able to stock shelves at Walmart. But then you take the smart kids. Which ones succeed and which ones don’t? It all comes down to education. Like with my science teacher … there were people who saw my ability and saw opportunities. These people recognized my abilities. This is what can really help these kids. You need mentors. Teach kids skills like computer programming, auto mechanics, newspaper reporting. They need a trade. That happens a lot in Silicon Valley. Mentors like my science teacher shown in the movie, that’s really important. Otherwise these kids flounder and get in trouble and no one works on building up their skills into something that can be work.
But somebody has to kind of mentor them into the business. When they go in with the regular interview process, they are so socially awkward they can’t get in the front door. Let’s take news reporting. You can teach a guy to do news reporting, but he may be socially awkward, but he can get out and gather news and facts.
What role should public schools play?
I’m very concerned about public education, that they are taking out hands-on classes. Wood shop, home ec, art — these are the kinds of things where kids can really excel. Art and sewing were my favorite classes. Later on it was woodshop. If it wasn’t for those, I would be very miserable. Also, I think hands-on classes teach important problem-solving skills.
I think taking these classes out is a huge mistake because this is where these Asperger’s kids and geeks and nerds can really excel.
It’s like the schools don’t put any value on visual thinking skills, and this is what I think is really bad. Visual thinkers are the ones who think up the new ideas. The visual thinkers are the ones who are going to solve the energy crisis. But they are floundering around and doing nothing, because they don’t have the shop teacher to turn them around or the science teacher who turned me around.
Do you think there are any aspects of autism being overlooked or not receiving enough attention?
I think, from a research standpoint, I’d like to see a lot more research put into sensory sensitivity problems. If you saw the movie, loud sounds really bothered me. Sometimes really brilliant people in the spectrum can’t tolerate a regular office because it sounds like a rock concert. And you can get visual sensitivities, like people who can’t stand fluorescent lights. They can be very debilitating.
How would you like to work in a newsroom that is flickering like a discotheque?
Problems with the hearing sensitivity and the light sensitivity can make things really awful. There needs to be research on the sensory issues, and those sensory issues are not just autism issues — they happen across a lot of different types of problems.
A number of medications are coming on the market to treat autism symptoms. What do you think of the pharmacological response?
There’s way too many things given out way too casually. We’ve got kids who don’t exercise and they don’t eat right and we wonder why they are hyperactive. Let’s try to get them to exercise. There’s way too many powerful drugs being given out like candy, but there is a place for medication if carefully used. I take a low-dose anti-depressent to control anxiety, as I explain in my book “Thinking in Pictures.”
How will society regard autism in the future?
I think autism is going to be very much imbedded in the genome. It’s a true continuum and very severe for geeks and nerds. If you were to get rid of the autism genetics, you wouldn’t have Silicon Valley, you wouldn’t have power plants. Tesla would be labeled autistic today. A brain can be made more for thinking or it can be made for more social purposes. Who do you think made the first spear? It certainly wasn’t the yackety-yaks around the campfire. You wouldn’t have any computer to type on if it wasn’t for autism genetics.
In 2003, a group of students, including William Cottrell, a Caltech student with Asperger’s syndrome, firebombed and vandalized cars across the San Gabriel Valley in the name of a radical environmental group. When arrested, Cottrell’s attorney attempted to convince a court that his client’s condition impaired his judgment the night of the attacks. But the court rejected that defense. How should courts respond to people who use autism spectrum disorders in defense of their actions?
That’s no excuse for being a criminal. If he burns down a lab, you need to go to jail — period. Autism and Asperger’s is not an excuse for that. A person with autism or Asperger’s knows right from wrong. People on the spectrum don’t have disorganized thought. It isn’t like schizophrenia, like the guy in the Arizona shooting. That’s rambling and disordered thoughts. People with Asperger’s might get very rigid beliefs, but destroying property and killing people is wrong. That’s a crime. I have a rigid belief that killing people is absolutely wrong — period.
So what’s it like seeing your life depicted on film?
They did a very good job of showing what I was like in the ’60s and ’70s. Claire Danes became me in the ’60s and ’70s. I gave her a lot of old videos of me from then. It showed what I was like in the ’60s and ’70s; it showed my anxiety and it showed my visual thinking and it showed my sensory sensitivity accurately. There were some things they fictionalized in the movie, but the clinical aspects were accurate.